Farakka-Rampal: An impediment to Bangladesh-India relations

When powerful people dismiss any serious threat of damage, brushing it off with a scornful, “no harm will be done”, we are prone to simply accept their assertion. They are not too far from the truth. After all, no harm will be done to them. They can create immeasurable harm to places and people, gain from their actions, and then remain out of reach.

Let’s first come to a dam. Questions were raised back in the 1960s when the Farakka barrage was being constructed on the river Ganges-Padma. In fact, a number of reputed Indian experts expressed concern about the long-term negative impact of this dam. However, no heed was paid to this and work went on. The barrage was put into effect in 1975.

As a result of this barrage, the flow of one of Bangladesh’s major rivers has been seriously impeded, particularly in the dry season. This has affected other rivers, large and small, that are connected to the main river. The devastating consequence is multidimensional, causing ecological imbalance that threatens livelihoods, heath and biodiversity. It is difficult to quantify the towering economic losses caused by this barrage.

After the Farakka, India has constructed dams on more rivers flowing into Bangladesh and more dams are in the pipeline.

The massive ‘river-linking project’ towards which India is heading, spells disaster for the region’s rivers, river-dependent lives and economy. According to the international conventions on water, India cannot do anything unilaterally and it will be responsible for any damages that ensue.

But will the Bangladesh authorities do anything about this? They themselves are threatening the very existence of the remaining rivers by indiscriminate construction of dams, encroachment on rivers and pollution, all in the name of development.

Over the last few decades, vested quarters worldwide, comprising construction companies, consultants, engineers, politicians and businessmen, have been controlling the rivers in the name of flood control, irrigation and green revolution. The detrimental impact is being felt now. There are examples all over the world of the downstream countries being pitched into disaster. The harm being caused to the upstream countries too is becoming apparent.

In the case of Farakka, India went ahead to construct the barrage despite Bangladesh’s protests. They turned a blind eye to the harm that Bangladesh would face, thinking only of their own economic gains when they hold the water in their dry season and release it during the monsoons. But they did not get those coveted results.

On the contrary, new problems cropped up and are growing out of proportion. Bihar is facing dire consequences, with the river losing depth and village after village being inundated with flood waters. Things have reached such a height that the chief minister of Bihar has called upon the Indian prime minister to demolish the Farakka barrage. That is what the people of Bangladesh, too, want though neither the government nor the major political parties have made any such demand.

Due to the unholy clique of pro-Indian and anti-Indian politics, this issue is never discussed pragmatically in Bangladesh. But there is anger in the public mind about the matter. Indian has always dismissed this as “India-phobic politics”.

The Sundarbans is a prime example of just how far Farakka’s damage has reached. The rivers and tributaries upon which the Sundarbans is dependent, are all connected to the Ganges-Padma water flow. With the advent of Farakka and the drying up of the rivers, saline water from the sea began to flow up into the Sundarbans. A study shows that Ganges’ fresh water would flow through the rivers Gorai, Pashur and Shibsha to enter the Sundarbans. The water flow dropped due to Farakka barrage. As a result, saline water entered the Sundarbans. This is destroying the mangrove trees. After the barrage went into effect, every second 0 to 170 cubic metres of silted fresh water would enter the Sundarbans. In order to maintain the proper amount of salinity there, a minimum flow of 194.4 cubic metres of water is required. Insufficient flow has drawn salinity into the forest. If there is over one per cent salinity, it will be difficult for the sundari trees to survive (Prothom Alo, 3 September 2016). Over the years this situation was weakened the Sundarbans.

It is not just about Bangladesh. If the governments of both countries had the responsibility and capacity to understand the importance of the rivers and the importance of the Sundarbans for the coastal region, there would have been a serious review of Farakka and the emergence of fresh ideas. Instead, year after year Farakka is destroying lives, nature and the environment.

There is no effort to rescue the Sundarbans from this devastation. On the contrary, yet another project has been brought forth, posing as a dire threat to the forest. This is the Rampal coal-fired power plant project.

The company behind this project is India’s NTPC and it is also to be constructed by an Indian company. India’s state bank will provide credit for the project, and the Bangladesh government will be the sole guarantor. And all indications are there that the coal will be provided by an Indian company.

On paper the ownership and profit sharing is 50:50 between India and Bangladesh, but in actuality the Indian companies stand to gain through sales and supply, employment and profits. Bangladesh stands to lose. It will face the irreplaceable loss of the Sundarbans. Innumerable people will lose their livelihoods. The life security of some millions of people will be at stake. Then there is the loan burden.

Will the harm be faced by Bangladesh alone? No. Nature is unbounded. Barbed wire fences cannot stave off encroaching disaster. If the Bangladesh side of the Sundarbans is harmed, this will affect the Indian side of the forest as well. That is why some people of that area came to express their solidarity with a gathering held in Kolkata against the project which would destroy the Sundarbans. One of them told me, “We are five million people who live in that area. If the Sundarbans is harmed, we will be destroyed. That is why we are in this fight too.”

The people of Bangladesh are always grateful to India for sheltering the refuges during the liberation war. Then again, the Bangladesh people are also angry at certain policies adopted by the Indian rulers. The people can’t forget these. Farakka is one such example. Then there are the other dams, the impending river interlinking project, the killings along the border, the impediments to trade, exploiting the entire communications system in the name of transit… the list goes on and on.

And now there is the Rampal power project, a disaster for the Sundarbans. Anger simmers over the previous issues, but people hope that perhaps a solution to these problems will emerge one day.

Old development models would portray people’s control over nature, including rivers, as a symbol of development. But as the consequences of such misplaced conceptions become apparent, people are trying to find ways to amend those errors. Dams are being demolished to restore original river routes and development is being coordinated with nature. India and Bangladesh must proceed in that direction.

However, when the Sundarbans is destroyed by the Rampal power plant, it will be too late. There is no way that this forest can be replaced. This time the people’s anger will not abate.

We do not want such circumstances to arise. The truth cannot be hidden behind dismissive statements of ‘no harm will be done’. In the interests of long-lasting friendship between the two countries, the governments of Bangladesh and India must move away from this project. We still hope that the two countries can maintain a peaceful coexistence based on mutual respect. The friendship must look towards nature and this will be beneficial for both sides. If the conscious people of both countries work jointly towards development with shared ideas and impetus, surely the bond of genuine friendship between the two peoples will be consolidated.

(Published on September 16, Daily Prothom Alo)